The 2000 presidential election was the most disputed political contest in the history of the United States since the 1800 deadlock in the Electoral College between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
George W. Bush, the Republican former Governor of Texas challenged sitting Vice President Al Gore. On Election Night, no clear winner had emerged, and by the next morning it was clear that the two candidates were mired in a political deadlock that would call into question individual votes as well as the value of those votes.
Gore was leading Bush by more than 200,000 votes in the national popular vote. In the electoral votes, Gore sat at 267, while Bush had collected 246. Both were short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, would be the decisive state, and George W. Bush led by fewer than 2,000 votes out of nearly 6 million.
The ensuing weeks played out with no shortage of political drama. Florida law required an automatic recount because of the narrow margin, the results of which reduced Bush’s lead in Florida to just a few hundred votes. The recount didn’t come close to settling the issue, in fact, it complicated things even further. Questions swirled about the way ballots were filled out, the legitimacy of a large number of absentee ballots, and precincts with wildly disproportionate numbers of votes cast for lower offices, but not for President, suggesting technological errors. The watchword became whether a “hanging chad” could count as a vote or if a ballot card had to be punched all the way through.
Because of the uncertainty of many of the ballots cast in Florida, the election was essentially a tie—the margin of victory was smaller than the margin of error that could be achieved in counting the votes.
The dialogue around the controversy shed light on the historical development of the right to vote in the United States, as well as the fragmentary laws that structure the franchise. Commentators questioned Florida’s state and local voting laws—focusing a fine beam of light on which portions of the Florida population were denied the right to vote, and how those restrictions stacked up against the laws of other states. A new dimension was injected into the conversation of the meaning of the right to vote, which was in some ways an extension of vote dilution. Questions were swirling not only about the meaning of the right to vote, but the right to have one’s vote counted accurately. During the election of 2000, new technology had cast into doubt whether voters could expect their votes to be counted accurately.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court settled the controversy in Bush v. Gore. The decision halted the hand recount that the Gore campaign had requested and the Florida Supreme Court had granted, which had the effect of delivering Florida’s electoral votes—and the election—to George W. Bush. Implicit in the holding was a reading of Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, which governs the choosing of a state’s presidential electors. The opinion in Bush v. Gore ruled that even if a state awarded the choosing of electors to the people, it would reassign that responsibility at any time, even after an election had been held. Under the ruling in Bush v. Gore, then, the Florida Legislature could assign electors however it saw fit. The opinion generated a remarkable amount of controversy, and in some obvious ways calls into question the durability of American’s right to vote in Presidential elections.